I came away from my afternoon visit to the InWithForward project in Burnaby thinking primarily about three things:

  1. The way the project is being done is different, even daring. The immersive engagement in the context and the open-ended pursuit of whatever makes sense in the moment are not the norm in the social sector (or most other sectors). I am impressed that the team members are so willing to adapt and change their methods based on what they perceive to be working or not. I am also impressed that the project sponsors have had the courage to support this kind of approach. I know this kind of approach takes commitment and energy. And it can be nerve-wracking. But the pay-offs in terms of new insights, relationships, and ideas could be huge.
  2. I was struck by the fact that some residents are expressing a desire to help others, make themselves useful, make some kind of contribution in the community. This resonates with what I found working for UBC in the Downtown Eastside. Local residents did not want to be defined by their needs. They did not want to just be clients or consumers of services. Similarly, students did not want to be defined by what they did not know. They did not want to just be a passive listener in a lecture hall. Both groups wanted to be active and valued members of the community. My team and I discovered that when reasonable expectations were set and the right combination of autonomy and support was in place, both students and Downtown Eastside residents rose to the challenge, sometimes spectacularly.
  3. Thinking about the project as a form of ethnographic research reminds me of the ways in which the investigator in such research is him or herself the instrument that collects, processes, analyzes, and interprets the data. This is an incredibly demanding role, even in traditional research settings. In this project, there are so many forces operating on so many levels and there is so much happening, I am impressed that the team is even trying to attend to and make sense of all of it. It reminds me of Bent Flyvbjerg’s concept of “phronetic social science” (see his 2001 book “Making Social Science Matter”) — the attempt to make sense of what is happening in particular contexts, including looking at how social power is operating, with the goal of improving conditions for the people living in that context. This kind of research goes beyond the limits of the rational mind and engages hands, hearts, and spirits as well. It is not easy work. It not only pushes boundaries, it sometimes obliterates them.

Given the complexity of the context and the relevant issues, I worry about whether the short time frame of the project will allow the data to “cook” sufficiently in the cauldron of the team’s minds, hearts, and spirits. Rapid prototyping may be an effective approach for certain aspects of the project but I think there is value, too, in allowing time for the maturation of insight and the arising of innovative possibilities. In my experience this maturation actually requires periods where action is not the focus and nothing much is happening (on the surface).